In the Suburbs: Mesmerized by the prayers of Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur

Wednesday at sundown, as Jews worldwide begin the traditional Kol Nidre (all vows) service, we will be ushering in the most solemn day of the 10 Days of Yom Repentance, Yom Kippur (the day of atonement). The Kol Nidre service and the day-long Yom Kippur services contain some of the most beautiful musical prayers that we experience every year. I am always mesmerized by these services.

While we won’t be in a synagogue this year, my wife and I will be able to enjoy the often haunting melodies, through the wonders of Jewish Television broadcasting which carries services from our favorite Central Synagogue in Manhattan.

The opening prayer tomorrow evening, Kol Nidre, is haunting and is repeated three times at the beginning of the service. I can never get that prayer out of my head.

According to Britannica.com, “The recitation of Kol Nidre actually comes before Yom Kippur begins (since one is forbidden from negotiating business on a festival), but the custom is to repeat the chanting of Kol Nidre three times — both to fill the time until the sun sets, and to be sure that any latecomers to the service can hear it at least once.”

The remainder of the service is filled with several other haunting melodies and three of those, Avienu Malkeinu, Al Chet and Ashamnu repeat several times throughout the next 24 hours. Each of these melodies, which can often involve lightly beating our chests, can reinforce our pledge to confess and atone for our sins from the past year.

Britannica.com points out that “The traditional confessional prayer, the Viddui, is composed of two parts, the Ashamnu and the Al Chet, that we read aloud on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Ashamnu (translated as “we have trespassed” or “we are guilty”) is an abbreviated confession, an alphabetic acrostic, and written in first person plural. We recite this confessional in the plural to represent our shared responsibility and culpability in all of our lives and missteps. We also share this confessional as a reminder that forgiveness is also shared.”

Among some of the phrases in these prayers are those that should capture all of our transgressions. Here are just a few of those, which are part of the chanting and tapping of the chest: “We have been insensitive; We have justified bad decisions; We have killed our impulse to do good; We have acted out of fear instead of love; We have been quiet when we should have spoken up.”

I never thought about it until looking closely at the prayers, but according to Rabbi Shraga in his piece, “Exploring the Al Chet Prayer,” “In Judaism we say that if you can get to the root of the problem, you can eliminate it entirely. That is the goal of the ‘Al Chet’ prayer that we say so many times during Yom Kippur services. Its 44 statements are not a list of mistakes, but rather identify the roots of mistakes.”

The haunting refrain to the Ashamnu and Al Chet prayers is sung at least 10 times during the Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services. In English, the refrain is , “For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.”

The one other lingering and mesmerizing prayer for me from Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services is “Avinu Malkeinu,” Our Father Our King. I always leave the services humming at least one version of that prayer, because the melody captures the essence of the holiday for me.

I hear the words and I am immediately humbled and contrite as I seek forgiveness during this time of mass confession. In that prayer, we are begging Our Father, Our King to hear our prayers and forgive us for all sins so we can be inscribed in the Safer Chaim — Book of Life.

But as services end, I am still left asking myself, “Will I be forgiven? Will I repeat the same list of sins that I had to confront this year?” I can only hope that when the melodies begin next year, I will be a little less sinful and more pure of heart.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at stevengaynes44@gmail.com.